Friday, January 29, 2010

The Aaron Hill Dilemma

Baseball, once the simple and lyrical pastime responsible for lots of bad poetry and purple newspaper prose, is a complicated game in the 21st century. Fans like us are constantly at odds with what we see and think we know and what later proves true. The Blue Jays second baseman &mdash who wears number 2 &mdash is a walking example of this troubling dichotomy.

On the surface, Aaron Hill is awesome. Aaron Hill hits for power, plays hard, gets dirty, plays a fine second base and seems like an all-around affable dude. He rose through the system and excelled at the big league level; signing away his arbitration years and putting up huge numbers in his first healthy season back in the fold. On the surface, Aaron Hill is a no-brainer.

But, on the nuts and bolts side, trouble brews. Many advanced baseball watchers question his ability to get on base, his ability to maintain a somewhat astronomical home run rate. This was a main point of discussion when two bloggers met in this country's capital city. Over a few dozen pints of bitter, we (he and I, not his version of we) debated the anger of the stats community. So quick to discard a season like Hill's 2009 and so quick to point out the shortcomings in his game. Why isn't it enough that Aaron Hill fields like a demon, hits the ball (consistently) hard, and puts up pretty counting stats? We can't fans like us appreciate Hill for what he is, not what he lacks?

While the statty side of the game may seem cold and indifferent, there are legitimate concerns to address in Aaron Hill's game. An excellent piece on Baseball Analysts this week highlights one of his offense's shortcomings. Aaron Hill's strikeout rate combined with his low walk rate put him into some slightly scary company. How scary? Jeff Francoeur has nearly the identical profile. Walk rate at or below 5.5% (of PAs) with a strikeout rate close to 15%. I'm not going to lie to you - that ain't good. Guys like Francoeur don't make it too difficult to get them out, hopefully Aaron Hill and his frozen roping ways don't follow the same career path.

Another post, this one on Beyond the Box Score, increased my level of dread for Aaron Hill in the future. The BtB Brains created clusters based on batted ball profiles and examined the average wOBA of those in the cluster. Imagine my shock when I discovered Aaron Hill lands in the fringes cluster 7 (high line drive, high home run, high walk). The average wOBA in that section: .398. Hill's weighted on base average: .357. His walk rate is half of the rest of the guys around him. Does that bode well or portend doom? Shouldn't I be excited for Hill to land in such exclusive company?

It comes down to raw, naked belief. Do I believe Aaron Hill's walks will rise to match his other components, or will the ever-important batted ball numbers fall to match his paltry walk totals? Did we see the best season of Hill's career in 2009 or the first, gigantic steps towards his ascent to the truly elite of the game?

The chicken and egg scenario above may not move us to jersey purchases and franchise cornerstone titles, but it lends itself to bigger issues. Do we put too much emphasis on capital V Value and not enough on the kind of return on investment an exciting player like Hill delivers?

One thing is for sure: walk rates be damned, Aaron Hill is officially the Best Blue Jay and certainly the number one reason to watch this club in 2010. None of the questions raised here are worth lobbing toward anyone else on the roster. Hoping for Aaron Hill to make one more leap into the Outer Chutlosphere of 6/7 Win dudes is one thing, enjoying the barrel-chested greatness of his line drive barrage is another. Here's hoping they stay out of each other's way.

Reuters image courtesy of Daylife.


  1. You make a valid point; those are areas for concern. BUT... he's still only going in to his Age 28 year. Who is to say that he won't rectify the aforementioned aspects of his game through working with the instructors? I'd still take Hill over pretty much any 2nd baseman currently active in MLB.

    Also, watch for my big movie comeback later this year!

  2. Don't get me wrong, I love Hill but...

    SELL HIGH! Hill has everything going for him, a 35 HR season, gold glove calibre defense, great contract, entering his prime years, etc. His value will never be higher than it is right now. That being said, the best thing for the long term success of the Jays, would be to explore trade offers for Hill.

  3. Firstly, Steve. Chase Utley will not see any of your movies until you realize how awesome he is. (He's really, really awesome.)

    Secondly, Peter. Have you no soul, sir? At what point does compiling prospects become nothing more than a cold exercise in ego-stroking? Not to mention a pretty foolproof way to skirt criticism by constantly building for the future. You have to stick your flag in the ground at some point, Aaron Hill seems like a decent place to start for me.

  4. I too am troubled by Peter D's often-voiced pleas for a Hill trade. If a productive player locked into a favorable contract isn't worth keeping around, then you've beome the Marlins.

    oh, and @ Drew re: twitter...birthplace be damned, Neil Young is ours!

  5. And I just have to restate my main argument here, which is this:

    Aaron Hill knocks the fuck out of the ball.

    This isn't a guy who got a few lucky bounces here and there. He's a dude who hits the ball harder than anyone else on the Jays, and even if some of those homers turn into doubles, he'll drive in runs and be productive.

  6. The one thing that we definitely have in Hill is great value for money across a few more years. To bad a more JP contracts didn't work out that way. I have a very hard time thinking that a trade is a better option at this point, though I do expect the offensive number will decrease. I see Peter's point - what if Hill declines significantly, OR the rebuilding only really starts to make this team great by the time Hill is finished? I'd rather take that chance and have some stability on the diamond and at the plate that the young pitchers will appreciate.

  7. Hill's a great player, but I'm a believer that if you are going to rebuild, then you've got to do it right and not do it half way. This team sights 2012 as potentially the year they could be competitive, I question whether Hill's contract will still look as great at that point.

    Trading a player at their peak value is the hardest thing to do in sports, if it was easy, we'd all be rich off our stock market investments. At the end of the day the most important goal is to win and that's all the fans really care about.

    All that being said, the team believes it only needs to "build", specifically around Hill, Lind and the young pitchers, and I'm okay with that as well. Just do your due dillegence and see what you could get for Hill, then decide what is best for the team.

  8. Peter D: Did you learn everything you know about "building" from extendo-games of Jenga?

    Why move your biggest pieces to push your team's ripeness date further down the road?

    Look at what the Jays got for Halladay (Greatest Pitcher in the Universe), then think of what a Hill or Lind would bring back. A prospect? Two? Marginal guys? A big maybe?

    The Eternal Building Process is a neverending road through frustration and disappointment.

  9. Tao, it's simple, you will never get more in return for Aaron Hill than you will right now and maximizing your return is critical for the Jays. I was also trumpeting a Roy Halladay trade last off season, which I still believe was a missed opportunity, as well I was trumpeting a Vernon Wells deal prior to 'the contract', etc., etc.

    By the way, I am the king of Jenga!!!

  10. Also, yes, there is the the threat of the eternal building process, but is that much worse than the eternal mediocrity process?

  11. you will never get more in return for Aaron Hill than you will right now and maximizing your return is critical for the Jays

    Put that maximum doesn't happen in a vacuum. The return on Hill is highest now, but what are the chances you get a player with a ceiling higher than Hill's?

    It isn't a zero sum shell game, you aren't trying to eek out a few points here and a few points there trading stocks. You can't just trade away a guy for the most he'll be worth to somebody else without considering how much he's worth to you. In the here and now Aaron Hill has more value than the return ever will be.

  12. "In the here and now Aaron Hill has more value than the return ever will be."

    You just blew my mind.

  13. I'm not suggesting that the Jays take the best offer for Aaron Hill, I'm suggesting they explore offers for him. If there is no deal worth making then walk away.

    To your other point, what is a good player worth on a last place team?

  14. @ Peter D
    We couldn't ALL be rich because somebody would have to purchase our assets at their peak value - their loss would be our gain.

    Also, Aaron Hill is a god damn beast. I recall more of his outs being bad luck than his hits being fortunate. But that's just the observation of a decidedly non-stats-oriented baseball fan who likes line drives and stellar defence.

    He also rocks the axe like a champ.

    Keeping Aaron in the fold, despite the prognostications of those metric obsessed prognosticators, is fine with we.

  15. I don't get the idea that if a team is not going to win (and that's never something that you can know with absolute certainty), then they might as well be as awful as possible.

    You can build while still maintaining a decent level of professionalism on the field. Blow it up constantly, and you risk putting yourself perpetually in the mode of digging yourself out of a deeper and deeper hole.

  16. Tao, I'm dead set against Tank Nation, and don't think the Jays should be as awful as possible. I just think they should do everything they possibly can to become a great team as soon as possible. This means maximizing their return.

    This also includes signing good free agent players right now that are left standing with out a chair. Go after guys like Johnny Damon or Jermaine Dye who will potentially be worth a good return come the trade deadline. If you play nothing but your prospects, you will have nothing worth dealing at the deadliine.

    Just look at what Billy Bean is doing signing guys like Ben Sheets, it's not because he thinks they can compete this year.

    @KP - If Aaron wasn't that good, the Jays wouldn't get the kind of deal I think they can get for him. Yes this deal would hurt, just like a Vernon Wells deal would have hurt back in the day.

  17. How does "SELL HIGH!" equal "I'm not suggesting that the Jays take the best offer for Aaron Hill, I'm suggesting they explore offers for him. If there is no deal worth making then walk away."

    Maybe they're already doing their "due diligence". I'm sure those teams interested in Hill, if there are any, have contacted the Blue Jays. His name probably came up (even if only very briefly) in the Roy Halladay trade talks, just because if you're already engaged in the process it doesn't hurt to ask.

    But why should AA start contacting teams right now? Not only because of his current value (which Tao and Drew have addressed) but because when you start offering out your best player to other teams, just to "see", other GMs's eyes turn into exclamation marks and you get a whole bunch of low-ball offers... It would be different, maybe, if someone had a need and Hill mark II was waiting in Vegas, and the other team had a player that filled a position the Jays were weak in. But otherwise I'm not sure the "feeling out" process would be valuable, and most likely you'd just end up diverting resources that could have been used elsewhere to greater effect. Plus, if word gets out through the media, is it going to affect Hill's play? You hope not, he is a professional, but why take that chance for a slight chance at a tepid return?

    Fuck exploring the trade of Aaron Hill.

  18. a) AA should be continually taking with teams regardless of specific discussions, getting a feel for the Aaron Hill market can be done simultanious during these discussions.

    b) SELL HIGH!!! Is a philosophy that should be applied to all players, however if you sell for value below the projected decline of your current commodity, then a deal doesn't make sense. I didn't think I had to explain this.

    c) I wouldn't at all be surprised if AA is doing his "due diligence", he's appears to be a bright guy.

    d) If you get low ball offers, no harm no foul, you aren't committing to anything, however this is how you gage interst. Assuming other teams will contact you if they are interested in a player is a mistake, because some teams will just assume that player is unavailable.

    The Joe Thornton Boston - San Jose deal is a prime example of that, many other teams expressed dissappointment that they were unaware Thornton was available and had they know, they would have made a better offer.

  19. Even the Marlins had veterans on their championship rosters. Why not just keep
    a few as opposed to paying a LOT more for them via free agency? My point being keep Aaron Hill.

  20. I'm pretty sure AA entertained offers on everybody this offseason. He said there were no intouchables. I also believe that he likely could return an offer worth closing. After all, the teams in MLB know that Hill increased his HRs by over 100% and that he doesn't walk.

  21. There seems to be a general "woe is us" gloom surrounding our fan base where "rebuilding" has come to mean sucking really, really hard just for the sake of it. You can, and should, rebuild incrementally by adding to your core so they grow on a team that is getting steadily better. It's not as simple as "let's suck for a long time then suddenly get good". That may have happened with the Rays but that's not how they planned it.

    About Hill. We've discussed plenty how he's going to regress at the plate. As others have said, he still hits the fuck out of the ball so I'll be OK with the doubles instead of HRs. But how about that glove! It goes relatively unnoticed because he's not "scrappy" and not a certain Red Sox MVP who can't handle the high inside fastball. Hill had the 4th best RZR in the majors last year, the most Out Of Zone plays made, and the most DPs started or turned. That alone might be worth his contract.

  22. Even if Hill's numbers fall back this year, and I think they will,(which as Tao noted might just mean HRs turn to 2Bs, thus, obviously, his HRs, RBIs and SLG% will all be down) he'll still be a stud and his contract will still be team friendly.

    Easy decision to keep him for a run in 2012 (when he'll be right in the middle of his prime years).

    And hopefully, if his numbers don't fall off too much, people will still be able to not pay attention to us as we yell "he's the best [position] in baseball!!"

  23. Excellent post, Drew, and an excellent discussion that followed.

    Long live Aaron Hill as a Toronto Blue Jay.

  24. I expect Hill's wOBA to back off to about .350 this year which is still above average. I expect some of those homeruns to turn into doubles. I expect his walk rate to increase back to around 7%, maybe even a bit higher.

  25. I remember at one point last year looking at fangraphs and seeing that while Hill has a low walk rate, he also saw far less balls outside the zone and his out-zone swing % was not bad. So I'm not too worried.

  26. Any thoughts despite the whole gonzalez/mac tandem at SS that maybe Hill could shift back to his originally position? I knw he gives us plus defence at 2nd but how does he project with the switch and some time with Butter. Just a thought, really I think I am just looking for ways to get hudson back in town. But would be curious as to the thoughs of others.

  27. Hill's orginal position is short. He played a tiny bit of third when he first came up because Glaus was hurt. Some people believe Hill's future is at third base, but I get the impression he likes second and doesn't want a move of it.

    Too bad Hudson's arm (in my mind anyway) isn't strong enough for third base.

  28. Hill didn't have a high enough walk rate?

    What's the point of standing on first as Rios and Wells strike out every inning?
    Stats need to have some level of context - a walk has virtually no value for the 2nd spot in the Jays lineup when our cleanup hitter goes months without a single RBI.

  29. Context indeed. Context such as "maybe if the number 2 hitter didn't make so many outs, the 3/4 guys would accumulate more precious RBI?"

    The fewer outs a player makes, the better and more valuable he is. It's pretty simple.


  30. Not to mention the effect that working counts has on a pitcher.

  31. Before Hill tried to blow his brains out on Eck's elbow - I was getting nervous about his hitting. However, even back then I thought he had untapped power. He has a big chest and seems to lock his arms and rotate his upper body giving him exceptional power for a guy his size. I remember thinking that they'll end up pitching him away all the time.

    To me - I'm happy if we "explore" trades for him or keep him. He'll be 30 in 2012 and not too old to be a veteran anchor to the "kids." A niggly part of me thinks they'll pitch him much tougher this year and it just might get ugly.

    On my "perfect" team he'd be the number six hitter.


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